with Michael Dean
The studio of artist Michael Dean is ten minutes’ walk down terraced streets from Ilford station in Essex, UK. Duck under an unexpected arch between houses and you’re in a semi-industrial space that the artist shares with a manufacturer of fresh pasta. There is a pervasive smell of damp flour and hot tomato. He has both a studio and a yard, and our conversation takes place outside, among sculptures and weeds. Born in 1977, Dean grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne and studied at Goldsmiths, University of London. He lives around the corner from the studio with his Swiss artist wife, Franziska Lantz, and their two young sons. Although the dominant material of his work is concrete, the basis of everything he makes is language.
Emily King: When did you start working with concrete?
Michael Dean: At the time my first kid was born - he’s ten now - I went through this crazy nesting thing of fixing the house. It was a rented dive in Bethnal Green, and we’d been living there for a long time. I’d got some cement from the hardware shop around the corner and figured out how it works - it was the quick-setting stuff - so I could fix the corner of the step that was broken.
EK: I remember that feeling of total panic when I was pregnant for the first time.
MD: Yes, anything I could do to put a positive spin on the fact that our lives seemed totally out of control. All I could control was the immediate environment. Then just having it in the house, having it under the sink…
EK: Do you still use a fast-setting cement nowadays?
MD: Yeah, I need it to happen as soon as possible. There is something in concrete that’s close to writing, in that you can throw it together and it sets there in front of you. It’s pretty urgent.
EK: How fast is fast?
MD: It’s hard within twelve hours and totally set in 24, so I work through the day and in the morning I always have a Christmas gift.
EK: What happens if you don’t use fast-setting cement?
MD: You could have something going 27 days before it’s fully hard.
EK: Does it change shape as it sets? Do you get surprises like you do with clay?
MD: Definitely. Essentially, it cooks. There is this huge chemical reaction with the water trying to get back into the cement somehow. There’s a moment when you could fry an egg on the sculptures, when it all becomes incredibly hot.
EK: Is it dangerous?
MD: I don’t think so, no. If you were to do something really silly like casting your arm in a block of cement - if your arm was trapped in it as it set - it would cook your arm. It would smell great, but it wouldn’t feel good at all.
EK: What kind of work were you making before you started using concrete?
MD: Text-based, paper-based, glossy-toss nothing.
EK: Was that what you’d been making at art college?
MD: I’d also been silk-screening and making books, but I’d never got my hands dirty messing around with plaster, as that seemed too much. I was just writing about physicality, rather than actually demonstrating it. I was interested in the palimpsestic nature of East London, where they’ve put in all these different cables and they’ve set a different patch of cement each time. Seeing that dirtied and spat on, with chewing gum, it’s as if a lot of people have said something. So I took a photograph of that and I was folding it, taking photographs of photographs, raging over the ridiculousness of a JPEG in relation to physical experience. And I had a whole bunch of writing, and the way that I was delivering it was failing…
EK: I was wondering if there’s an analogy between what you can do with concrete and what you can do with language.
MD: Concrete has that sublime potential: if words start failing and your word is a piece of concrete, then you can smash it against your head and you know that you exist. You can have a sense that language is failing you, and you exist completely on the outside of it, but there’s something categorical about the concrete object.
EK: Do you consider yourself to be a sculptor?
MD: I never have. Now, by default, because everyone keeps telling us that, it is becoming a bit like that. But I try to resist it, because I’m coming at it with a certain sense of disgust. There is always a point in my work when I am freaking out that I am covered in this shit and breathing in this dirt, regardless of the dust mask. I am sweating, I am making this huge thing that is far too big for my pair of arms to make, I am controlling this hot slurry.
EK: Do you like concrete because it has a kind of autonomy?
MD: Yeah, I am not a professional in relation to it.
EK: When you are working with it, do you anticipate the form that you are moving towards?
MD: I have a gesture, which is informed by the polygonal language of a typeface. I can see, for example, that making the word “shoring” is going to mean that the cement will have to slide to the left, so I am going to need to build that up; I will have to get the mixture to a certain level of wetness to get that last smear and then contain it with bin bags before it rolls back.
EK: The word “shoring”?
MD: Making an “S” out of a series of angles, then an “H” and an “O” and an “R”. I need to have the form of the word, otherwise I would just be pouring.
EK: So they all spell out words?
MD: Yes, this one spells out “sake.” You can’t read it, but I need it to be like that, to be motivated by an utterance.
EK: Do you make more work than you show?
MD: Yeah, you can’t really see them among the weeds, but there’s about 40 works out here, just breathing, taking in the weather.
EK: Can you control the material more now than you could initially?
MD: Definitely, that is part of the strange joy of this democratic ceramic. It’s like the joy of forming a punk band: you take a bit of sand, a bit of water, a bit of cement, and then you make the thing.
EK: Could you become too skilful, too controlled?
MD: Of course. I can only sound like some sort of Buddhist monk and say that there’s always a degree of control in losing control. If I completely lost it, I would be left with nothing but dust and ashes, and that’s not a record of anything. But concrete is so tough, particularly if you reinforce it with steel, which is why I leave them out in the weather. British weather does something to concrete that I can’t.
EK: Were you by any chance influenced in your use of concrete by brutalist architecture?
MD: I might have been, except that I couldn’t find any books about it because I grew up on the 165 Estate in Newcastle, which is all concrete bricks. The library we had - it’s been knocked down now - was a brutalist masterpiece by Basil Spence.* But I guess they had no money left over for books, because it had no books in it.
EK: Tell me about the process of mixing and pouring concrete.
MD: I mix it to the consistency of bread dough in a huge tarpaulin and then throw it down.
EK: A tarpaulin?
MD: Yeah, on the internet I saw how guys were mixing concrete in Ethiopia - two guys wish-washing it in a tarpaulin.
EK: So you learnt to use concrete online?
MD: Yes, on YouTube. The internet has facilitated so much in terms of how poor people make work.
EK: You mix your own concrete?
MD: As often as I can, I do it by myself, but for the larger works I will get someone in.
EK: It must be incredibly physical. Couldn’t you use a mixer?
MD: A motorised one? Well, if I was making an eight-bagger - eight times 25 kilos - I’d need two cement mixers going, and they would be making a noise, whereas this way I can just do it quietly.
EK: Before you start making a big piece of work, do you get a sense of how hard it’s going to be? Do you anticipate the physical effort?
MD: Somehow you never can. That’s why I keep going back to it. I can never believe it. Every time I de-mould something I get that same feeling: that I have made something and I don’t know how it’s been done.
EK: Do you pour it onto the metal reinforcement?
MD: No, you want the metal to be in the centre as much as possible. I just figured out welding earlier this year and that has facilitated so much more. It means I can encase the metal in the cast while that’s still wet and then I can weld it to other structures.
EK: Did you learn welding from the internet too?
MD: No, there was a one-hour course at the London Sculpture Workshop.** They were convinced it wasn’t the right thing to do, welding rebar, but it seems to be working fine. Everyone has their own ideas.
MD: Steel reinforcement bar. They thought it was an inferior metal, but if you are coming at it from where I’m standing, I am not going to be limited by the Newtonian qualities of this or that material. I haven’t got time for that.
EK: So you are not interested in craftsmanship?
MD: No. Well, if there’s a craft, it’s the craft of not being crafty.
EK: Where do you buy the cement?
MD: From eBay.
EK: I’m revealing my ignorance, but can you explain the difference between cement and concrete?
MD: It’s a poetic thing, I had a problem with it at the beginning too. Cement is the binder. Cement only becomes concrete once you add an aggregate. So, if you have cement and you mix in sand, then it’s concrete.
EK: So, cement plus aggregate equals concrete.
MD: That’s it.
EK: Can the aggregate be anything?
MD: It can be sand, marble dust, coins. The cement just needs something it can bind to.
EK: And you couldn’t just use cement on its own?
MD: No, because it would have no strength. It would be like an autumn leaf: it would exquisitely diminish when you touch it.
EK: Are there health and safety concerns around using concrete?
MD: I don’t want to implicate myself, with my lack of knowledge. I don’t know if it’s dangerous, but I do know that I will have to leave it in my will that, when I am cremated, the concrete tree that I have in my lungs as a result of breathing in all the dust is left to the Michael Dean Foundation.
EK: Will these sculptures last or are they just going to crumble away?
MD: Everything will crumble at some point. The laws of entropy are written on the back of my contract.
EK: Has anything of yours ever needed to be restored?
MD: The fragility and the deterioration are written into the work somehow. So if a bit breaks off it just stays with the work. But there are works in car parks in Bethnal Green that have been there since I started using concrete about ten years ago. They’re exposed to the weather and they’re totally fine. So tell that to the judge!
*) Born in 1907, Sir Basil Unwin Spence was a modernist Scottish architect whose works included the Hyde Park Barracks in London and the “Beehive” building that houses the executive wing of the New Zealand Parliament buildings. While his original Newcastle Library has since been demolished, its new incarnation incorporates Spence’s original slate flooring as a wall covering.
**) Located on the banks of the Thames in Woolwich, the London Sculpture Workshop first opened its doors in 2012. It is the city’s first not-for-profit organisation to offer facilities for artists creating 3D work. Course titles include “Modelling Sculpture in Wax,” “Pewter Casting” and “Welding for Artists.”